Graded on a Curve:
Danny Fox Trio,
The Great Nostalgist

A whole lot of contemporary music is accurately tagged as variations on the tried and true, while the raison d’être of a smaller percentage is concerned with subverting or boldly breaking free from precedent. The Danny Fox Trio travel a third path, putting an individualist stamp upon a form that often thrives on subtle differences in execution, as they solidify their existence as an extension of the long and vibrant piano trio tradition. Radiating the influence of classical music, but without the expectations that association can bring, The Great Nostalgist is out on compact disc January 19 through Hot Cup Records.

The Danny Fox Trio features its namesake at the piano, Chris van Voorst van Beest on bass and Max Goldman on drums. They are a working group, having traveled the US in a sedan with this classic setup, and their sound has been called “modern chamber jazz.” It’s a description that can prepare one for a light, refined atmosphere, but that’s not what’s served up on The Great Nostalgist.

Somebody somewhere once tagged ‘em as a contempo Ahmad Jamal Trio, and it’s an astute compliment, enough so that it subsequently made it into the trio’s short biographical text. But there are marked differences. For starters, thus far, the Fox Trio’s repertoire on record has eschewed standards or any outside compositions at all; everything on their latest was written by the pianist and arranged by the band.

This is hardly the first piano-based affair to oust standards from the compositional pool. But where many pianist’s tunes branch out of the post-bebop template and often connect like variations on standards (or standards to be, perhaps), Fox’s writing resonates as strikingly personal, in large part due to subject matter (e.g. stuffed animals, Carvel Ice Cream store mascots, caterpillar-shaped accordions, laundromats, and Terminal 4 at JFK Airport). It’s all enhanced by their collective, working approach.

Like the great jazz piano trios, the bass and drums elevate far above mere sympathetic support. This is immediately apparent in opener “Adult Joe,” which begins with van Voorst van Beest and Goldman deepening and enlarging the first of the set’s numerous cyclical repetitions from the hands of Fox. It’s not an especially traditional way to start out, but it isn’t long before matters do exude a more tangibly “jazzy” tone.

But throughout The Great Nostalgist, the music won’t sit still. Contrasting with the opener, “Theme for Gloomy Bear” emerges in balladic mode and then wastes no time infusing the setting with stylistic and structural twists and turns, including shifts in intensity and tempo, another cyclical motif, and terrific expressive passages from van Voorst van Beest and Fox.

A large portion of the selections are of ample length, yet are so densely packed with activity that they feel economical. These progressions are never hectic however, and are likely to snare the appreciation of both straight-ahead listeners and those inclined to the avant-garde. Abetting this widespread (but non-calculated) appeal is a diversity of musical interest on the part of the players including classical, electronic and R&B.

Indeed, “Jewish Cowboy (the Real Josh Geller)” springs from Fox’s love of country and bluegrass (Doc Watson gets a mention), and the inspiration is audible through sterling execution and segments of robust momentum. This range of influence surely lessens the ease of making direct comparisons to predecessors, though Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus), with whom Fox studied, is occasionally audible. But to these ears, “Jewish Cowboy” radiates a bit like Horace Parlan.

The group avoids the typical allotment of post-bop solo space, which doesn’t mean instruments don’t sometimes drop out; both bass and piano do so in “Cookie Puss Prize” as Goldman delivers a delightfully unusual rhythmic feast. Some hardliners may find the lack of classicism tough to swallow, but even with it’s numerous shifts, there is enough legit jazz expression in “Truant” (van Voorst van Beest excels here) to outclass whole albums of autopilot improvising.

The relatively brief “Caterpillar Serenade” does offer Fox by his lonesome for the duration, beginning with the ambience of mingled classical and jazz before dishing out short flights of tasty melodicism. “Preamble” brings this penchant for catchiness back together with the bass and drums, and if they ever tired of the modern Ahmad Jamal Trio role, it’s obvious they could give the Ramsey Lewis thing a try.

Although it still holds a series of changeups, “Fat Frog” is the record’s hottest slice of jazz heft, with a splendid “solo” run by Fox in the midsection before the emphasis shifts to the bass and then, briefly, drums. The opening moments of “Emotional Baggage Carousel” nicely blend balladry with a touch of blues, and later, another sweet improv flurry from Fox as his counterparts kick it alongside him. “Old Wash World” saves some of the most infectiously rhythmic interaction for last, and sums up a release of unstrained brilliance.

The Great Nostalgist is the Danny Fox Trio’s third release, and after spending time with the bunch, it shapes up as their best. This comes down to the benefits of communication sharpened over time, as well as the maturing compositional and interpretive skills of the band, but also to the nature of the recording, captured analog by Taylor Wood in the living room of a 100-year old house in the Catskills Mountains. The warm sound of the bass alone is a joy for the ear, and the whole is an assured, occasionally spectacular achievement.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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